“Here Kitty-Kitty! Naaaa-aaat, come baaa-aaack!” yelled mother from the back porch.
“Mommy, is he going to come back?” whispered Lily holding on to her mother’s skirt.
“Yes, Lily. You know he always comes back. I can see him up in the tree line. Once he catches a mouse he’ll get bored and want to come back.”
“I hope he brings a mouse down so I can see it all bloody and stuff,” said Cooper as he smashed the sandcastle he was working on in the sandbox.
“Cooper don’t talk like that around your sister,” scolded mother. Turning to her daughter, “Lily, Nat killing mice is in his nature, so we can’t deny his animal instinct. Why don’t you two run up there and grab him so we can go inside for dinner. Daddy should be home any minute.”
“Race you sissy,” called Cooper as he took off running.
“Wait for me!” yelled Lily running after him.
When the two children reached the edge of the timber Cooper ran right into the trees, tripping over a tree root with a thud into a pile of dead leaves. Lily peeked her head into the tree line, but didn’t let her toes leave the perfectly trimmed edge of the lawn.
“Cooper, be careful it’s scary in there,” said Lily cautiously.
“I’m not scared. If our silly cat can go in here, so can I.”
“You try and make him run out, and I’ll try to catch him.”
“Too scared to come in little sister?” mocked Cooper.
“I’m younger by two minutes! Quit calling me your little sister. I’d come in, but I don’t want to get my dress dirty.”
Cooper went deeper into the trees searching for Nat. The timber was dense with old tall trees making a dark canopy. Thick shrubbery, grasses, and fallen leaves covered the timber floor. The only paths that led into the timber were small and irregular, made by animals. The children weren’t allowed to play in the timber. Their parents feared they would get lost at their young age.
“Here kitty-kitty! Nat, where are you?” called Cooper. Cooper spotted Nat’s dusty tan coat behind a pile of dead leaves. He was preying on a mouse that looked occupied nibbling on something. Cooper pretended to prey on Nat. Quietly he moved around trees and avoided crunching footsteps on dry leaves and twigs. Just as Nat was about to pounce, Cooper pounced first; trapping Nat under his stomach, careful not to smash him. Nat’s fur rose in fear of the heavy mass on top of him, and he let out a loud meow. “Got you!” Cooper yelled in triumph. Nat calmed once he knew it was one of his family, and the boy who was usually playfully rough with him.
Turning to head back to the yard, Cooper raised Nat above his head and brought him back down to place a kiss on the cat’s dry nose. “Your breath smells like mouse guts,” Cooper said as he cradled Nat in his arms. Nat looked up at Cooper with squinted eyes that showed comfort and appreciation for this affection.
When Cooper came out of the timber Lily’s eyes lit up. Reaching out for Nat, “You found him! Let me hold him.” Cooper passed Nat to Lily, and she nestled her face next to Nat’s. Copper ran to the porch and Lily began skipping behind cradling Nat in her arms.
“Nat why can’t you just be a housecat? I get scared that someday you’ll never come back.” Lily whispered to Nat, squeezing him tighter to her chest.
Mother stood on the porch smiling as the father pulled the family’s tan SUV into the driveway. Lily and Cooper ran to their father, and mother walked behind picking up a stray ball and jump rope along the away. When they met the father in the driveway he scratched Nat behind the ears as Lily held him, and they all headed inside together.
As hard as the family tried they could not make Nat a housecat. Nat would slip out of the house as the young children of the family left a door ajar, when the mother would be bringing groceries from the car, or even if a first floor window was left unattended. It was like the timber that sat behind the family’s house was calling to him. The family saw Nat’s adventurous side, and strong internal instinct to hunt when they watched him prey on mice in the outskirts of the timber. He would bring his prey back to the porch to show off like a trophy, and to devour in the comforts of the warm sun. After a while the family gave up trying to keep him indoors. They saw he would return after he satisfied his need in the timber, so they let him come and go as he pleased. With this freedom Nat’s instinct and desire to hunt grew stronger.
Nat’s ability to catch mice was unique because unlike many cats that roam the wilderness, Nat’s claws were removed. Before the family gave up housebreaking him mother had them removed to save the furniture in their posh suburban home. Nat learned not to rely on his claws to catch and kill his prey. By pouncing and trapping mice under the weight of his strong forearms Nat could keep his prey alive. He held the mice by the nape of their necks with his teeth to be enjoyed at his leisure. His determination to overcome his clawless handicap grew into a keen ability to stalk and search for mice, and he developed a pounce that would erupt him through the densest rough of the timber that sat behind his owner’s house.
On a sunny afternoon Nat was playing with a mouse in the timber. Nat was stalking the poor little mouse, catching him, and letting him go over and over again. He got so caught up to in his game that he didn’t realize how deep he had gotten into the timber. On his final prey and catch he sunk his teeth into the mouse’s neck delivering the final, fatal blow. When Nat looked up, the mouse still dangling from his mouth, he was whisker to whisker with a grey stray. Three other strays sat behind the one that was in Nat’s face. Nat dropped the mouse out of his mouth in fear. A flood of thoughts ran through his mind. I’ve never run into another cat in this timber before? Are they going to be nice? Start a fight? Take my lunch? The neighbor’s cat always ignores me from the bay window where she sits, and that’s the only other interaction with another cat I’ve had since I left my litter. The stray spoke and took Nat out of his thoughts.
“What are you doing out here prissy pussy?” the grey stray teased.
“Well... well… I…” stuttered Nat.
“Go home and eat your Fancy Feast, leave the mice for us who are hungry and have families of our own to feed,” a stray in the back shouted.
“Were you playing with your food?” the grey stray asked.
“Yeah! What kind of catch and release game was that? It looked like you don’t even have claws,” asked a calico in disbelief.
“Um... I don’t,” said Nat, lowering his head in shame. The strays fell over in laughter.
Nat looked down at the mouse that lay lifeless at his feet. He looked back up at the strays and knew to leave it, turn, and run. He ran out of the dark timber and into the light of his backyard. Lily and Cooper were playing in the yard. They saw him running towards them, and smiles stretched across their faces. Lily picked up Nat to bring him inside, he was happy to have this home to go to. Lily and Cooper always knew how to cheer him up, scratching under his chin. He was going to enjoy an afternoon of dress-up with Lily, and playing the role of lion for King Cooper.
As Nat played with Cooper and Lily he caught a glance of himself in the mirror that hung in the playroom wall. When he saw himself in the pink tutu Lily always dressed him in, a twang of anger flushed through him. He thought, why was I so scared of the strays when I ran into them this afternoon? I am a great hunter, and I bet if I showed them they wouldn’t call me a “prissy pussy.” I will make them like me. He declared to himself, and began thinking up a plan.
The next day Nat set out to meet up with the strays again. He slipped out the back door with the mother as she went out to water the flowers, and ran up to the timber. Step one of his plan was to look like a stray. He would not fit in with the strays if he looked perfectly brushed and wore a leopard printed collar. He removed his collar, by way of a branch, and hid it. By going through some thick brush his coat quickly became matted and frizzed out. Looking the part was taken care, now he needed to prove his skills.
Nat headed deep into the timber until he spotted some strays hanging out under an old knotted oak tree. Hunt like you know you can Nat, he said to himself. He began hunting: stalking, pouncing, trapping, and holding the mice by the nape of their necks. Then he brought each mouse, one by one, to the strays. At first the strays were confused why he was doing this, but who would pass up an easy kill that was brought right to them. Some of the strays began following and watching Nat hunt.
“Look at him go.”
“I’ve never even seen a housecat hunt.”
“Who on earth taught him to do this?”
“Yeah, and he doesn’t even have claws!”
“No claws, how is he this good?”
After each stray had a mouse or two an older calico stopped him, “Hey man, take a break and come lay down with us at our tree. We’re stuffed.”
“Alright thanks!” responded Nat. He was tired from all his efforts. Nat smiled as he stretched out under the old oak, satisfied by his accomplishment of proving himself. After chatting with the strays for a while Nat got up to head home.
“Nat you’re welcome back to hunt with us anytime. You’re not the typical housecat,” said a grey stray as Nat began walking away.
Nat quickly became a regular to the old oak, and developed friendships with the strays. With Nat the strays would hunt and gorge themselves on mice for days. When stopping at home it was an attempt to be seen so the children still new he was okay, and loved them. He would get so caught up in the depth of the timber that he would forget his other life and family all together.
“Dad… can we get a puppy?” asked Cooper to his father as he sat down next to him on the couch.
“Yeah, we want a puppy,” added Lily who was sitting in front of the TV.
“Why do you want a puppy?”
“Because Nat’s never around, it’s like we don’t even have a pet. I haven’t seen Nat in three days, and before that he was gone for four.” said Lily.
“That’s true, Nat has been gone a lot more lately. You know puppies are much more of a responsibility than a cat,” countered the father.
“But we’re a little older now, so we can take care of him,” replied Cooper.
“And we can train a dog to come back and not leave us all the time like Nat,” argued Lily.
“Those are some good points kiddos, I’ll talk to your mother.”
As Nat spent more and more time in the timber he became a leader amongst the strays. He felt guilty when he left them to go home to his family. When he did go home he would spend the day around the family, but they wouldn’t give him as much attention as they used to. One day he went to play dress-up with Lily like they used to. He jumped into her chest of dresses, only to be scolded and slapped on the nose for messing up the organization of the dresses she just had finished folding. Cooper had gotten into video games, and when Nat went to go lay on his lap he got shoved off because he messed up Cooper’s concentration, which made his player die. Nat ran out of the room and Cooper closed the door behind him locking him out. Nat left the house sad and confused. He went back to the timber to hunt and eat until he forgot about his hurt. When he returned to the strays at the old oak he felt accepted and loved like he used to feel with his family.
One morning Nat woke up after countless days in the timber with a stomach full of mice. He stumbled away from the old oak and made the trip through the timber, he stopped to slip on his collar along the way. As he ran through the perfectly trimmed lawn to the back door he could smell that something was different. He jumped onto the porch, leaped onto the bench that sat next to the living room window, and began pawing at the back window to alert the family of his return. Nat gazed into the window and saw the family playing tug-a-war with a dog. Nat felt betrayed. He knew he wasn’t around a lot, but when he was he would try to be the best pet he could.
With feelings of abandonment, Nat turned and ran back to the timber. He ran deeper and farther in than he ever had before. He passed the old oak where the strays were, but he wanted to be alone. Alone to hunt and to forget about his family who betrayed him. He told himself that he would never go back to his family. Nat ate and ate, trying to fill the hole that was just ripped through him. Pouncing faster than he ever had, Nat was lost in a manic hunt.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa… Slow down buddy,” came a deep voice from the darkness.
This snapped Nat out of his trance. He had never heard that voice before. A very large cat slipped out from the darkness and approached Nat. “You have some serious skill my friend. What are you doing out here acting like a crazed fool?”
Feeling broken and tired, Nat collapsed and told this stranger where he came from, how he had become a leader with the strays, and the recent event that had just happened. This strange cat saw an opportunity to take a vulnerable animal under his wing. He was new to town, and with him came a new business.
“They call me Mr. Oliver. You see my friend, what I do is… I catch mice. I take these mice to the housecats of the neighborhoods. These housecats will exchange some serious catnip for my services.” He explained.
Nat knew the effect catnip had on cats that weren’t used to eating it. If it is introduced to a cat at a young age it is like any other treat. If a cat ingests catnip that is not used to it, it will have an effect on the body that causes the cat to feel like they are being petted all over, and they will meow in uncontrollable pleasure. The effect doesn’t last long, and makes the cat want more and more to feel satisfied. Nat’s owners never gave him the stuff, but he had seen what it did when a stray got a hold of some once.
Mr. Oliver continued to explain his business to Nat. “With your ability to catch and carry the mice alive, we can offer a service that I’ve never been able to before. Mr. Oliver’s Catch and Kill. We catch, you kill,” he said in commercial voice.
“Yeah! The worst part about being a housecat is that the families strip you of anything that makes you a cat. Those houses in the neighborhood are so new you never get a chance to find a live mouse in the house. And if there is a mouse problem, the family sets up traps and calls in a specialist.”
“I’ve never gotten humans. They get dogs to guard the house, but they don’t let their cats hunt the mice,” added Mr. Oliver.
“And look what they did to my claws. Gone. All because I scratched up a bedpost when I was a kitten.”
“Now we’re going to use those sorry housecats to gain some capitalism,” said Mr. Oliver.
“Um... capitalism?” questioned Nat.
“Let’s say... control instead,” said Mr. Oliver smirking.
“That sounds good to me. I’m never going home to that stupid family again. I’m ready to make this timber my home for good.”
Nat agreed to partner with Mr. Oliver. Starting with just the two of them they began to build a business, and a friendship. Nat showed Mr. Oliver how he used his forearms to pin the mice so that they remained uninjured. They caught and carried the live mice to the houses in the neighborhood. Then they would exchange the mice to the housecats, and bring the catnip to the timber to store. Word spread among the housecats, and the business grew very quickly. The demand for mice was so high that Mr. Oliver and Nat knew they would have to get help from the strays.
Nat and Mr. Oliver had quite the stockpile of catnip to share with the strays. They themselves did not eat the catnip because they knew how addictive it was, and that wasn’t good for business. They gave a bit to each of the strays and watched as they all began to roll around, purring and meowing in pleasure. In their catnip bliss he told the strays that if they wanted more catnip, they would have to work for them.
Nat trained the strays to hunt like he could. Soon the strays were like robots. They would hunt and catch mice, deliver the mice in the neighborhood, and return to Nat and Mr. Oliver to receive their payment. Nat and Mr. Oliver would be the ones to collect the catnap on a weekly basis. It was an endless cycle.
“Mom!” cried Lily as she ran to mother, who was at the kitchen sink washing dishes.
“What’s wrong sweetie?”
“Cooper told me that Nat is dead,” she said softly.
“Cooper come in here,” mother called to the other room.
Guiltily, Cooper walked in. “Yea Mom?”
“Why did you tell your sister Nat was dead? We don’t know that,” she said sternly.
“Well we haven’t seen him in like forever. And in school we talked about coyotes and other animals that prey on cats in forests. I bet he got eaten,” he said very matter-of-factually.
Turning from Cooper to her mother, “Mommy is it true. I miss Nat. I’ll be sad if he’s dead.”
Trying to lighten the mood mother said, “We don’t know for sure if Nat is dead Lily. That timber is overrun with strays. Neighbors are always complain about them coming into their yards. I bet Nat just made friends with the strays and forgot about us.”
“He forgot about us? Were we not good owners?” asked Lily.
“Do you think he got sick of playing with us?” added Cooper.
“No he loved us. Remember how cute he was when he would climb on top of the fridge when we ate dinner to be apart of the family.” said mother in a convincingly.
“Remember how mad you would get Mom when he would jump into a freshly folded basket of laundry?” laughed Cooper.
Laughing, “Yeah he would destroy my hard work, but I think he loved the warmth of the clothes.”
“I hope he comes back someday,” said Lily.
“Who’s up for some hunting?” Nat said, excitedly pouncing from tree root, to tree root.
“Eh, I’m tired,” said a stray lying comatose after a catnip session.
“I have a run to make,” said another turning to leave.
Another stray was sprawled out with its legs in the air meowing. Nat looked at him and a few others who were in a similar state, and knew they wouldn’t be joining him. Nat turned to find Mr. Oliver. He felt guilty for turning his carefree friends into addicts who were only concerned about working for catnip, and eating catnip.
“Mr. Oliver! Let’s go on a good old hunt. One for fun, not for food or business.”
“Nat, we have catnip to count and orders to take. We don’t have time to hunt for fun,” said Mr. Oliver who was occupied taking catnip inventory.
Nat turned away to hunt on his own. He felt empty inside and didn’t feel the satisfaction hunting used to provide him. After catching a few mice he gave up and slowly walked to the edge of the timber. When making runs to collect the catnip he would try to avoid his old house as much as possible in resentment. Today, he wanted to see his house and maybe have the chance to see his family. He stopped to check if his collar was still in its hiding spot. It was, but the leopard print was worn and faded from being hidden in a pile of dead leaves for so long. Nat sat on the edge of the lawn staring longingly at the place he used to call home. Just as he built up the courage to make his way to the back porch like he used to, the back door opened. Out came the dog. It was much bigger than it was the last time Nat saw it. Cooper and his father followed the dog out with a ball and a bat. Nat looked at the house, and he looked into the timber. Neither direction felt right to go to.
Sometime later Nat was doing his typical morning routine of assigning runs to the strays, and handing out catnip payments. On this particular morning he wanted to pull every last hair out of his coat because he was so sick of his routine.
“You stupid idiot!” yelled Nat. “How much catnip did you eat.” A stray rolled around in a pile leaves, arms and legs stretched, meowing and purring. “Pull it together cat, this is an important run. Mrs. Mittens is one of our best customers.” The stray continued to roll around in pleasure.
“I don’t make mouse runs. I’m on business side not delivery anymore.” Nat mumbled to himself. He quickly found a plump mouse, caught it, and began carrying it through the timber. Nat hated Mrs. Mittens; she was that snotty housecat from next door that never acknowledged him when he actually lived next door. “We’re going to have to start charging her extra.” he said to himself through gritted teeth.
Nat ran through the timber and quickly reached the edge. He stopped to see if anyone was in the backyard and when he saw the coast was clear he began running down the lawn. Looking at his house on the way down he longed to see Cooper in the sandbox and Lily on the swings set. That was a happier time before he got caught up in this mouse game. Just then the back door opened and Lily and Cooper came running out. Lily had a pink softball mitt, and Cooper tossed a ball into the air. Their parents, and the dog, followed behind them. Nat stopped running. His mouth fell open and the mouse he was carrying scurried away. Cooper and Lily looked so much older, he thought. So many feelings and memories came rushing back. Then suddenly the Lily spotted him.
“Look, look!” Lily shouted. “It looks like Nat!”
The family started running over to Nat. He didn’t know what to do at first. He looked at the mouse scurrying away. He looked back at the timber. Then he looked at the family. An instinct from deep down inside, told him to run towards them.
“It IS Nat!” said father scooping him up in his arms.
The family began petting him and telling him how much they missed him. Nat realized how much he truly missed his family, the life of curling up in laps, and lying in the warm sun of the porch. The dog gave a sniff at Nat, but Nat ignored him. He would figure out how to deal with him later. The family turned and headed inside carrying Nat. He took one last look at the timber, and he knew he would never return again.